April 5, 2023

Citta: Mindfulness of Mind

Tempel Smith began practicing Vipassana and metta meditation in 1989. He spent a year in Burma as an ordained monk with Ven. Sayadaw U Pandita and Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw in 1997. He has taught meditation and Buddhist psychology to a wide variety of people including prisoners, activists, youth, service providers, and those with severe and chronic illnesses. In 2008, he joined a four-year teacher training program run by Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock and IMS, and now leads the two-year Dedicated Practitioner Program at Spirit Rock. The Dharma Tempel teaches is informed by western sciences and psychology, Theravada Buddhism, and somatic based trauma healing. For more info on Tempel, please visit his website.


The Pali word “citta” is translated into two words: mind and heart. It’s often referred to as “mindfulness of mind.” Citta is all the qualities that end up knowing or having our experience. When we just use mindfulness of mind, it tends to point up to where we’re doing a lot of our thinking, but it’s really the totality of everything we call emotional, embodied intuition, and all the fast, crunchy cognitive stuff. This is the Third Foundation of Mindfulness.

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is body, the Second is vedana or feeling tone, and the Third is mindfulness of mind or citta. The Fourth is looking at the systems we can cultivate that lead to our freedom.

Time sometimes produces stable experiences. But it’s not truly stable, it can and will change. And when things are repetitive, or they change slowly, our ordinary minds will take a snapshot and say, “This is stable.” We don’t track the subtle nuances and we take relief in the fact that it feels stable. This sets us up for being confused when changes happen.

The Buddha wanted us to tune into this: not only that things change, but that if we can take our mindful intimacy to these four areas, we’ll see that there is usually a common denominator of why we are suffering. The first is knowing your body and coming to terms with having a human animal that is your home base for this life and watching it do natural things: grow, age, and die. That is completely natural, but we are not in alignment with that. And, therefore, aging terrifies us.

The Buddha wants us to develop mindfulness—a heightened intimacy with life that we don’t usually have in ordinary conventional living—and bring it to these places. He said, when we misunderstand the body, misunderstand vedana (feeling tone), misunderstand the mind, and misunderstand the processes that brew our suffering, we are always miss-guessing or misperceiving why we’re suffering. He said, develop your own mindfulness and you’ll start untangling suffering patterns.

It behooves you to look at vedana, or feeling tone, because it will do more for your suffering than almost anything you could do with your mindfulness. Getting a sense of: “That’s unpleasant. I don’t like it. That’s why I’m ramping up all this reactivity. That’s why there’s so much ill will.” At its core, it started with something that was unpleasant. And if I can breathe with something unpleasant, I don’t have to go on the journey of defeating the thing and changing all of humanity to get rid of this thing. I can breathe through it, and then ask, “Can I do something about this unpleasantness?” But if it means changing human behavior, so that I don’t have to feel something unpleasant, that’s a hard one.

The Third Foundation of Mindfulness, citta or mindfulness of mind, is looking at your subjective experience of your own mind. And, except when you’re asleep, your mind is giving you direct access to a human mind. And you take it very personally because it’s your mind. But you could say, “For the next 24 hours, I’m going to sit back—got my popcorn, got my soda—and I’m going to watch what a human mind does.”

It’s amazing how complex the mind is. It’s not like tic tac toe, where you run out of permutations quickly. Your own mind is quite incredible: how it moves, how sensitive it is, how powerful it is, how deep some of the habits are. And they’re deep for a long time, and then one day, they evaporate. Or the habit evaporates slowly over time, or you’re still working on the same habit through therapy, LSD trips, and whatever you can do to try to dislodge this habit. And the habit just keeps chugging along.

If we didn’t take our minds so personally, we could learn a lot about being human. Some of the themes are universal. Some people have a little more fear, some have a little more anger, some have a little more peacefulness. But we all have a human mind and there are a lot of commonalities to having a human mind. The invitation of mindfulness—and what I would love for you to do—is to get more intimate with your own mind and take it less personally.

One of the ways I do that is I talk about myself in the third person—very intimately. For example, “Tempel woke up, and he’s so groggy this morning. And I tried my best to wake him up because he had things to do, and he just would not wake up.”

If I talk about Tempel in the third person, I don’t have to take it personally that he was hard to wake up. It’s more intimacy, but less about observing me. What I can take personally is that I’ve worked with Tempel a long time, and he has some insecurities that are deeply rooted. But he also has some strengths that I’ve learned that I was taking for granted that weren’t pointed out when I was young.

A heightened self-intimacy, but not taking that self so personally, is one way we can suffer less. It’s going to happen to you anyhow, and you could go in with this wisdom, or you could be dragged into it. But you cannot control what will happen tomorrow. And it won’t be your fault. But you will blame or credit yourself for what happens.

If you step back from taking it so personally, but step in with mindful curiosity, your mind is going to show you a lot: what human sadness is like, what human boredom is like, what human satisfaction is like, etc. It will show you all these things. And after a while, you won’t try to grab any one of them.

With the first three foundations—of body, of vedana, and of the mind—there’s no language of intervention. You’re courageously asked to watch these things arise and pass. So, we all might want a different body, but what is it to know a body without our preferences? To take this body with its heartbeat, breathing, sweating, aches and pains and recognize, “I’m not going to intervene, I’m just going to take every expression of this body as a data point of what it means to have a body.”

This is the language of the Third Foundation: when a practitioner understands the mind with greed as a mind with greed; and when a practitioner understands a mind without greed as a mind without greed. That is how we practice mindfulness.

How many of you are in murderous rage right now? Okay, a few of you are, but you’re not brave enough to raise your hand. But hopefully you’re not. But how many of you are knowing that you’re not in murderous rage right now? Now that we asked that question, the hands go up, but you weren’t enjoying the fact that you’re not in murderous rage right now. You’re taking the state that you’re in, and you’re in it. But in that way, the state is defining you unconsciously.

Fear is one of the frequent places I go. So, when I do, I’m going to breathe in and out, be in my body, and get to know fear from within fear. It’s very hard to do. But what would it be like to walk in and see a fear wave arise, dance around, then dissipate as it absolutely must, because it’s just a passing wave. Pink Floyd says, “Just a passing wave, one of my bad days.” You’re just in it, and it’s arising and passing. And when it passes, you can say, “Okay, that was impermanent.” This is a mind that now understands fear a little better. Also, fear is impermanent—it’s only a visitation of a certain emotional pattern. Understanding this, I don’t have to fear it as much, which bolsters me the next time it comes.

We get to know a mind with greed, and a mind without greed. We all prefer a mind without greed. But that preference will really block your ability to welcome mindfulness into a mind with greed, because you’ll judge it. “Let me go in and prune this, talk myself out of it, let it go.” There is room for that. And that’s the language in the Fourth Foundation: now that I know greed a little better, I’m going to wisely intervene upon it as a suffering state.

I was on retreat here once on a warm June day, and we were doing lovingkindness practice and I was trying to invite my mind to be more loving. The windows were open, and I heard the bell on a dog collar outside the window. I was in an averse mood, and I thought, “Why is there a dog here? Now I have to endure this dog bell! Who puts a bell on a dog?”

Then I had this little periscope go up and I thought, “You usually don’t hate dogs. And you’re really hating on this dog.” It seemed like clarity: “There ought to be a rule, we need to talk to the neighbors about managing their dogs.” And then a lightbulb went off for me: “That’s a little extreme. I’m in an averse mind.”

It feels like clarity, but everything has a razor’s edge. It’s unkind and it’s negative. And I thought, “Wow, I’m in it. And I have no awareness that I’m in it.” So, it propagates.

I begin to explore the averse mind and it feels like it’s gaining power and insight. This is my family thing: where the most cynical person is usually the rightest person because they can stand the hard truth. It made me notice this and think: “Is that what truth is? Being the most cynical?”

How many times have I been in an averse mind, and thought it was accurate, and therefore, I propagated it, and started collecting detailed catalogs of everything that was wrong? And then I end up in the same tower of righteousness and cynicism. Wherever I go, I build that tower. And I’m trying to get out of it. I’m trying to do lovingkindness. And that was beautiful—to try to go into lovingkindness—but it was more powerful to get inside of my own averse mind and start noticing: how does an averse mind work?

My mind is often without aversion and I don’t check it out. The nice thing about checking out the mind without aversion is that it gives you contrast. Let me just watch this and not always correct it. Take that moment to understand this is a mind not suffering. It’s just me breathing. That’s something to be mindful of.

The suffering won’t come because you have a body. The body feels unpleasantness, but the body doesn’t really suffer. And vedana comes and goes, as is natural, but the mind can suffer. So then mindfulness of the mind gets curious about experiences that are suffering. You’ll notice that it’s hard to get mindfulness inside a suffering mind. Because there’s hindrances there and the mind doesn’t want to be there when it’s suffering—it’s busy blaming something else. So you have to work against some of the unconscious forces, to breathe your way into your own ill will. And then breathe your way in and build faith. I can have this experience and it doesn’t define me, it won’t become permanent, and I can learn from it.

Listen to the complete talk here.